This interactive exhibit is turning Mi'kmaq language lessons into art

Each day, a new word is added to two giant wall canvases. On the left: the word in its original Mi'kmaq language. On the right: the English translation.

The Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John's is hosting a modern spin on a very old language

Mi’kmaq Word of The Day 2.0. (Eastern Edge)

St. John's locals are getting a Mi'kmaq language lesson — all with the help of text messaging.

The Eastern Edge Gallery in downtown St. John's is currently hosting an interactive exhibit titled Mi'kmaq Word of The Day 2.0, a modern spin on a very old language.

Jordan Bennett, a Newfoundlander of Mi'kmaq ancestry, first started to learn the Mi'kmaq language when he was an artist in residence at Winnipeg's Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art back in 2010. An Indigenous art collective named Post Commodity led the residency, and so the shoe fit.

Bennett turned to his friend Ursula Johnson, a woman of Mi'kmaq heritage from Nova Scotia, for help. Their language lessons were carried out over text messaging, with Johnson explaining the pronunciation and meaning of each word.

"At one point I thought that it might be interesting to share my learning experience with the city of Winnipeg," Bennett says. "I would take screen shots of our Instant Messages, and then I printed them daily about four feet high and placed them in the window facing the street. I wasn't sure if anyone was actually reading or engaging with the words, but it felt very powerful to have our language present in the cityscape."

The new work at Eastern Edge Gallery will be presented in the digital format of an audioscape, accompanied with a daily drawing of text. Once again, Bennett has paired with Johnson.

Mi’kmaq Word of The Day 2.0. (Eastern Edge)

Each day, a new word is added to two giant wall canvases. On the left: the word in its original Mi'kmaq language. On the right: the English translation.

Speakers set up in the room allow listeners to hear Bennett's speaking progress. Every day, the script gets a little longer. The exhibit is literally changing every day.

"By the end of the exhibition, the viewers will have the whole passage that we wrote together, focusing on the importance of language, and generally asking that we remember where we are from," says Bennett.

The exhibition captures the relationship between land, language and sustenance through putting ourselves forward, being humble and accepting humility as a way to learn and move forward.- Jordan Bennett

Johnson chose the words for this exhibit in collaboration with Bennett and Eastern Owl, a First Nations women's drum group in St. John's. They thought carefully about what they wanted to be heard in Ktaqamkuk (the Mi'kmaq name of Newfoundland).

"The exhibition captures the relationship between land, language and sustenance through putting ourselves forward, being humble and accepting humility as a way to learn and move forward," says Bennett.

"In the recordings you hear in the gallery space, I struggle with the words. It's very different than English in the forming of sounds in your mouth and body, and sometimes it's hard to do because I know people are coming into the gallery and are hearing me stumble on my words."

Bennett says he's one of the many Mi'kmaq people in Newfoundland trying to relearn the language and appreciate the relationship between that language and the land.

Take the word apuknajit, meaning the spirit of winter. In Mi'kmaq tradition, apuknajit is feasted on the morning of the first day of February as thanks for surviving the winter. That's why the only entrance fee to the gallery is a non-perishable food item for those who are finding it a little hard to get through the season.

Bennett's ongoing body of work utilizes various mediums to explore land, language, the act of visiting and familial histories, as well as challenging colonial perceptions of Indigenous histories, stereotypes and presence with a particular focus on exploring Mi'kmaq and Beothuk visual culture of Ktaqmkuk (Newfoundland).

Says Bennett: "Everything that we know about ourselves, our language — how we exist and how we interact — are inseparable from the land that we live on."

Mi'kmaq Word of The Day 2.0. Until Apr 5. Eastern Edge Gallery, St. Johns. www.easternedge.ca

About the Author

Candice Walsh

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Candice Walsh is a freelance writer and travel blogger in St. John's.

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